Thursday, September 29, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Choosing and Unchoosing

I vaguely remember a children's song based on today's gospel reading.  It had a line that repeated several times.  "The wise man built his house upon the rock..."  And there was a corresponding line that went, "The foolish man built his house upon the sand..."  I can remember the catchy tune, but I'm pretty sure the lesson of the song was lost on me.  Oh I heard that you should build your house on rock and not sand, but I'm not sure I made any real connection to faith.  Object lessons and metaphors are generally lost on concrete-thinking children.  Of course I'm not sure all that many adults have bought into Jesus' message.  We may sing of Christ as our solid rock, but we are sometimes quite good at ignoring what he says is a solid foundation, to hear his words and act on them.

It isn't that we don't want help from Jesus finding something solid and dependable in life.  Many of us crave a sense of stability and certainty.  We live in a world where many of the things we've counted on seem unsure.  Everything is changing, and not always for the better. 

Jesus certainly offers us plenty of specifics.  Today's reading is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, and in it Jesus has clearly laid out how we are to live, teaching on everything from personal piety to money to forgiveness to the law to judging others to putting God first in our lives.  He says that actually doing his teachings will anchor our lives firmly, but in our day, it is easy for Jesus' teachings to get lost in a dizzying array of other voices and choices.

Americans have long been big on individualism and have valued making our own choices.  Nonetheless, the number of choices now facing us are mind boggling compared to 50 years ago.  There used to be an old joke about getting phone from the phone company (the only place you could get one way back when).  It went, "You can have any color phone you want as long as it's black."  I didn't have any choice about going to church as a child, or as a teenager for that matter.  And the culture I grew up in worked pretty hard to limit the other available choices on a Sunday morning.  The stores weren't open, the movies weren't showing, no sports were played, and you would get dirty looks from your neighbor if you cut your grass.

I have not desire to go back to those "good old days,"  but we do face a difficulty that some previous generations did not.  To choose Jesus we have to unchoose some other things, many other things actually.  And we live in a culture that constantly tells us we can have more and more, that we should have more and more.  Our TVs get hundreds of channels.  We flip around with our remotes trying to watch multiple shows at one time.  And the TV manufacturers are trying to help us, bringing out new models that show two, three, four programs at once.

Even when we want to follow Jesus, so many other things beckon us.  I'll take home a book I know I should read but then I don't want to miss that TV show, and I need to get to bed and rest but Colbert is on.  And I need to spend more time in prayer but another email just came in on the smartphone, and I need to check in on Twitter and Facebook or I might miss something. 

Parents over-schedule their children in sports and enrichment activities because they are afraid that those children might miss out on something valuable, on something they could need.  But Jesus talks about narrow gates and hard roads, about living in a particular way, which of course means not living in some other ways.

I sometimes wonder if a problem people have with Christianity is less that they don't want to choose Jesus, and more the realization that they don't want to unchoose all those other things.  Yet every choice requires unchoosing other options.  To choose one person as a spouse effectively eliminates millions of other possible choices.  Choosing to have children means to unchoose some other possibilities.  (Though we all know people who attempt to ignore these realities, who keep dating after they marry or take infant children with them to bars, fancy restaurants, and sporting events.)

I wonder if some of us aren't so frazzled all the time because we know well how to choose, but we've become very unpracticed at unchoosing.  No wonder our lives sometimes feel like they're falling down around us.  I wonder what things I need to unchoose in order to get my life on solid ground, on a firm foundation.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Walking the Walk

There is a quote from comedian Stephen Colbert making the rounds on Facebook today.  If you don't know Colbert, his Colbert Report features him of the host of a half hour comedy/"news" show where Colbert parodies conservative talk show hosts.  But while he feigns being an avowed, right-wing reactionary, in reality he is much more moderate.  And he is also a devout Catholic not afraid to let his faith make an appearance on the show (though often found in the opposite of the ridiculous things his character says). 

The line on Facebook was from a show a while back, and it says, "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

Perhaps quite appropriately, today's gospel reading features Jesus saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  It seems that "believing" in Jesus, if it does not lead to a changed way of living, does not count for much in the new day Jesus says he will bring.  At least according to these words, we can believe as hard as we want, but if we don't do God's will along with it, Jesus will say to us, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers."

We Protestants have championed grace and faith over works to the degree that we sometimes act like what we do doesn't matter at all.  Jesus clearly thinks otherwise.  God's grace does claim us no matter what we have done, does invite us into restored relationship through no merit of our own.  But God's love and grace are given to us to draw us into a loving relationship with God where we will quite naturally show our love and gratitude in return.  If we truly love God we will want to please God, and will make efforts to do so.  But if we are simply "believing in Jesus" because we think it will get us something, we've missed the point entirely.

I suspect that some of the malaise and decline of traditional churches comes in part because there has not been enough evidence of new life, of walking the walk, for people to see much point in church.  I know a lot of long time church members who ring their hands a great deal over the declining number of people in the pews.  And being paid by people in pews, I confess to a certain amount of anxiety about this as well.  But if our congregations are not walking the walk, not doing God's will in the world, I don't know why God would not just leave us do our little thing, and pour out the Holy Spirit on those congregations and gatherings that are actually helping people find new, restored, Spirit-filled life as the living body of Christ in the world. 

God is working God's purposes out, but God does not need my denomination or yours to do so.  The body of Christ will still thrive, but it will be found wherever the faithful answer Christ's call, are equipped by the Spirit, and seek to do God's will in the world.  And the hope of God's coming Kingdom will continue to shine in the darkness.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Can God Rise Up?

“Because the poor are despoiled, 
   because the needy groan,
     I will now rise up,” says the LORD."

 Can my God "rise up?"  Can yours?  Or is my God simply a concept, a hope, a distant giver of blessing and perhaps life after death, but not a God who can rise up and defend the poor or correct wrongs?  Given some of the things sometimes attributed to God, such as Pat Robertson saying God sent an earthquake to Haiti as punishment for a deal with the devil, many Christians are understandably reluctant to see God actively at work in the world.  But what, then, can our God do?

If many modern Christians have little sense that God could or would act on the world stage, I'm not certain if that is the fault of the Church or of God.  Certainly the Church has contributed mightily to notions of a God interested in little more than our status when we die.  Certainly the Church has neglected Jesus' teachings on the Kingdom and our call to form people to show that Kingdom to the world.  But God can be awfully hard to spot at work in the world.  It is not surprising that very few people, even avowed Christians, are expecting God to act on behalf of the poor and needy and punish those who have neglected them.  I'm pretty sure the poor and needy would come in for a lot better treatment if people really thought God was paying attention on that count.

Of course this isn't simply a modern issue.  Perhaps we do find it easier to see God absent because we can understand the science behind earthquakes or hurricanes, but the fact is that people in biblical times were not so different from us in thinking God had taken a vacation.  The Old Testament is full of accounts where the rich and powerful lived with no worries about God stepping in and stopping their exploitation of the poor.  Sure, some of the prophets warned them that God's patience was running out, but no one had seen God do anything to back up such warnings in a long time. 

To be honest, I don't know why God acts - or more often doesn't act - in the manner often seen in the Bible and in our day.  If I were God, things would be different, but obviously I'm not.  And surely God knows what God is doing.

So what does faith look like in times when we have trouble seeing God at work in the world?  Is it simply a personal, interior thing?  I know folks who assume so.  Is it simply a matter or getting my beliefs in order so that I'm "saved," meaning that my name is on the heavenly guest list?  I know quite a few folks who think so.  Or is faith the assurance that God will act in God's time, and so living in expectation of that time?  As Jesus when he promises that God will grant justice to those who cry out, "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Do we believe that God can rise up, that God can stir Godself and correct and restore a broken world?  And if we do not, what exactly do we believe in?

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Worry, Anxiety, and Priorities

We live in anxious times.  People are worried about the economy.  They are worried about terrorism.  They are worried about partisan gridlock focused always on the next election and rarely on doing what is good for the country.  And I have observed something over the years.  We are rarely at our best when we are worried and anxious.  We become reactive and lose some of our capacity for thoughtful decision making.

One of the interesting places this can be seen is in small, dying church congregations.  The closer a congregation gets to death, the higher the anxiety tends to be.  And while this worry may provide an incentive to do something, observation and research have shown that the closer a congregation draws to death (similar things can be said of many other institutions), the more difficult it becomes for it to do the things that might help it revive.  When a congregation gets anxious and worried about survival, its actions tend to exacerbate rather than cure its crisis.

Jesus seems to think that worry comes from a lack of faith.  It is the product of chasing after things that cannot really give meaning and life, or it is an inability to trust that God will provide.  Our culture has worked very hard for decades to create the first kind of anxiety.  Much of the advertising aimed at Americans is designed to create anxiety, an anxiety that will be alleviated if only we purchase this product or that.  But as soon as we buy into this, we're hooked.  There is always one more product, or a newer and better version of the one we just bought.  And of course our very economy itself is now dependent on this anxiety cycle.  It requires ever increasing levels of consumer spending to sustain itself.

I wonder what Jesus would say to us if he came today?  The people he spoke to, telling them not to worry about what they would eat or drink or wear, lived in a more subsistence economy, with most people more focused on daily bread than on building wealth or deciding between a 40 inch or a 52 inch flat screen TV.  And what does it mean for us when Jesus says, "But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."?  Will we get our new TV if we focus more on God's work?  Or do we stop worrying about TVs altogether when we are focused on building the world God envisions?

I do enough worrying of my own that I have a hard time answering such questions.  So perhaps I should simplify things by instead asking what it would look like for me to strive for God's kingdom and righteousness, and letting the other stuff sort itself out. 

Think how freeing that might be, to find a driving purpose in life not set by advertisers and not designed to hook us into a never ending cycle of consumption.  Think how good it might be to measured on nothing more than our faithfulness to God's cause.  Think how freeing from stress it could become content with God' provision.  I wonder if I can do more than think about it.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sermon audio - Remember Who You Are

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Sermon text - Remember Who You Are

Philippians 2:1-13
Remember Who You Are
James Sledge                                       September 25, 2011

Mohandas Gandhi, the famous Indian leader who led a non-violent campaign against British colonial rule in his country, is often quoted.  I see his quotes pop up on Twitter and Facebook with some regularity.  “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”  And here is another, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
The quote from Paul and the one from Gandhi seem incompatible.  If Christians have the mind of Christ then how could we be so unlike Christ.  And yet there is a ring of truth to what Gandhi said.  Too often, we Christian do look very little like Jesus.  Too often no one would see us and think they had caught a glimpse of Jesus, even though that is precisely what it means to wear the name “Christian.”
When you meet people from another country or culture, especially when it is a place you have never been, you are likely to draw some conclusions about that country or culture based on the people you meet.  The same is true when we Americans travel abroad.  The way American tourists act in foreign countries gives the people there an impression of what America is like. 
Gandhi was not a Christian, but he lived in a country that had been ruled by Christians for hundreds of years.  What he saw clearly had not impressed him all that much.  But Gandhi had bothered to learn about Jesus from the Bible, and so he realized that he liked Jesus very much.  It was Jesus’ followers that bothered him.  It reminds me a bit of the funny but troubling movie and book by Dan Merchant, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers.

In his letter to the Philippian Christians, Paul is pretty clear what it looks like when we have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.  We do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, we regard others as better than ourselves, we worry about other people’s needs more than we do our own.
I’m not sure we need Paul to tell us this.  If we know the story of Jesus at all, we know that he cared little for earthly possessions, that he spent much of his time caring for others, that he hung out with the bottom tier of society, that he warned over and over about the dangers of wealth, that he was non-violent and called his followers to love their enemies and “turn the other cheek,” that he gave himself for others even to the point of death on a cross, and he called his followers to embrace this self-sacrificial way of the cross.  We know all of this, so why don’t we look more like Jesus?
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
I suppose one possible reason that we’re not more like Jesus is that it seems to us an impossible task.  If Jesus was sinless and perfect, what chance do we have to be the same?  I don’t think Paul expects the Philippians or us to become sinless or perfect, yet it is clear he thinks we can become very much like Christ.  And this is not simply a matter of us trying harder.  Rather it is about the new life that comes to us in Christ.
When Paul urges the Philippians saying, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete,” he is insisting that encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, and a sharing in the Spirit are indeed available to us.  The word translated “if” in our reading is a Greek form implying that this is indeed true.  Some translators even prefer to render what Paul writes, “Since there is encouragement in Christ, consolation in love, sharing in the Spirit,” and so on.
And this isn’t the only interesting translation issue in our verses.  When Paul quotes an early Christian hymn about the nature of Christ who did not regard equality with God something to be exploited but instead emptied himself, he introduces it with that phrase, Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  But this could just as well be translated, Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus. 
Given the way Paul often speaks of how we become something new in Christ, I actually think this the more likely translation.  Paul is not urging the Philippians or us to try harder to be like Jesus.  Instead he is calling them and us to live out who we actually are.  The good news that Paul declared long ago to the Philippians is they have become new people in Jesus.  They have died to sin and be reborn to new life.  God is now at work in them, enabling them both to will and to do the things that honor God.  Paul is not simply giving a motivational pep talk.  Rather he is urging them, and us, to remember who we truly are.
I was at a pastor’s conference a few weeks ago, and in one of the presentations they played a clip from the Disney movie, The Lion King, my pick for the all-time best Disney animated film.  If you've never seen it, the story revolves around Simba, the cub of the lion king, Mufasa.  Simba is heir to the throne, but Mufasa's brother Scar, the villain in the story, hatches a plot where Mufasa is killed and Simba is convinced that he is to blame for his father’s death.  Racked with guilt, Simba runs away into self-imposed exile, leaving the pride to the evil rule of Scar. 
In the clip played at the conference, Simba’s old girlfriend comes to plead with him to return, to take his place as king and overthrow Scar before it is too late.  Simba resists, but with help from Rafiki, a mandrill who is a kind of priest, prophet, and wise sage, he has a vision of his father.  Voiced powerfully by James Earl Jones, Mufasa tells his son, "You have forgotten who you are, and so you have forgotten me... Remember who you are." 
Emboldened by the promise that his father Mufasa dwells inside him, Simba, no doubt with fear and trembling, returns to take his rightful place.  Remembering who he is and what that calls him to be and do, he restores the lion kingdom back to the peace and harmony it knew under Mufasa.
When I watched that movie clip, Mufasa’s words to his son grabbed me and would not let go.  "You have forgotten who you are, and so you have forgotten me.”  I could not shake the sense that this was spoken directly to me.  It was as if Jesus was speaking to me. “You have forgotten who you are, and so you have forgotten me.”  And if we have forgotten who we are in Christ, no wonder Gandhi says, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”
Of course the good news is that correcting this situation is not about us mustering up tremendous courage or remarkable fortitude and commitment.  Correcting this situation is instead about remembering.  Remember that in your baptism you were joined to Christ and the Holy Spirit now dwells within you.  Remember that in Christ the power of sin over you has been broken, and you are able both to will and to do that which honors God and reveals Christ to the world.  Remember, God is at work in you.  Look inside yourself, and remember who you are!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - My Heart Is Appalled

This morning's paper is filled with good news.  The struggling economy has moved scores of people below the poverty line, with African Americans particularly hard hit.  That same struggling economy shows little signs of life.  And late last night, the state of Georgia executed a man named Troy Davis.  Executions have become run of the mill in recent years, garnering little media attention, but significant questions about the actual guilt of Troy Davis thrust this case into the media spotlight.

As I take all this in, and as I read more articles about how "fixing" our national and state budgets will lead to big cuts in programs affecting those already hit hardest by this economy, I find myself resonating with this morning's psalmist. 

  Therefore my spirit faints within me;
        my heart within me is appalled...

  Answer me quickly, O LORD;
        my spirit fails.
  Do not hide your face from me,
        or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit. 

Sometimes I wonder where God is in all of this.  Where is the God who other Psalms insist rescues the oppressed, executes justice against the wicked, and delivers the needy?  Where was God as Troy Davis was killed last night?  If Davis was truly innocent, my question only burns more.  Where was God?  Which recalls another death penalty case nearly 2000 years ago where an unjustly convicted man cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" quoting yet another Psalm.

I take some small comfort in Jesus' promise that God's blessing and favor are on those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness," who are pained by the injustices of the world and long for something better, but it is very small comfort.  I do not feel much blessing from God this morning. 
  Answer me quickly, O LORD;
        my spirit fails.

Answer me please, O God.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Understanding Life

I've been out of town a couple of days because of the untimely death of a cousin of mine.  He wasn't religious at all, and so there was no funeral as such.  People did speak at the funeral home visitation and again at a celebration held at a bar.  The owner closed down for the night and provided food and drinks for all who came; I'd guess more than 200.

My cousin was not a long time resident of this town, and this made the huge outpouring of love for him all the more pointed to me.  Quite a few people spoke about meeting him when he went out of his way to help them out in some fashion.  On one occasion he even fished a woman's keys out of a port-a-Jon. 

As such stories were shared, I found myself thinking about Jesus' words on the judgment of the Gentiles in his final public teaching from Matthew 25:31-46.  In these verses, Jesus seems to be speaking about how outsiders are judged by whether or not they fed the hungry, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger, etc.  Jesus insists that in so doing, these people from outside the faith community ministered to Christ himself.

I was still thinking about how my non religious cousin had really found a home and community in these last years, how his life seemed to be more of a calling, when I read Paul's words in this morning's epistle reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul seems to be clarifying instructions from a previous letter that have been misunderstood.  "I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons — not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world."  He goes on to talk about how it is only those who call themselves Christians that Paul expects the community of faith to shun for behavior not in keeping with biblical law.  They are not to judge outsiders.

Yet it seems to me that we Christians are forever getting Paul's instructions backwards.  We pass judgment on the world while ignoring the patently un-Christian behavior of those in our churches, including our own.  Paul finds it particularly mind boggling and horrendous that Christians would sue one another in court rather than working out differences within the community of faith.  When's the last time you heard of people with grievances against one another asking a pastor or church governing board to mediate a settlement and reconciliation?

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this.  I'm still struggling with feelings of loss and grief at the stunning loss of my 47 year old cousin who was also a husband, father, brother, son, uncle...  It also gives me pause regarding my own mortality, my own relationships, and so on.  But at times over the last few days, I was struck by the notion that my cousin understood and "got" life better than I do. 

I am fully convinced that being "in Christ" is about being as fully human as possible, as true to what it means to be alive as is possible.  Yet I regularly see people outside the Church who seem better at being alive and human than I am.  Surely that has to say something to me and to the Church. 

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sermon video - It's Not Fair!

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Sermon Text - It's Not Fair!

Matthew20:1-16 (Exodus 16:2-15)
It’sNot Fair
JamesSledge                                       September18, 2011

Perhapsyou saw the news story a few weeks ago about a Youngstown man who filed alawsuit seeking a share in the lottery winnings of some of his co-workers.  It seems this fellow has been part of poolwhere workers combined their money to buy lottery tickets, but he was out witha back injury the week the pool bought a ticket that was a $99 millionwinner.  According to the lawsuit, themembers of the pool had an unwritten agreement that they covered for each otherwhen someone was not at work.  But onemember of the pool insisted that it was a putup your money and you’re in, don’t and you’re not sort of setup. 
Isaw a TV news story on this where a reporter asked people to comment on thelawsuit.  Almost all those interviewedthought the fellow didn’t stand a chance in court. “Fair is fair,” onesaid.  “He didn’t put anything in and sohe doesn’t deserve any of the winnings.”
Alot of us have strong feelings about things being fair and right.  We know they often aren’t, but we want themto be, and so we react when we think someone is doing something patentlyunfair.  I think the people in that newsstory thought the man suing his co-workers was trying to pull a fast one, tryingto get something that didn’t rightly belong to him.  But I suspect if it could be proven that hisfriends had promised to cover for him while he was out of work and had thenlied about it, well then people would have a different view of things.
Whatis fair?  What is the fair amount oftaxes that someone should pay?  How muchmore can a CEO make compared to factory worker at the same company and it stillbe fair?  What sort of punishment forcriminals is fair?  Is it fair for acollege to consider that a student came from a disadvantaged home and schoolsystem in its admission standards?  Is itfair when a wealthy person or a corporation is represented by teams of the bestattorneys in court while a poor person has to rely on a barely-out-of-law-school, public defender?  What is fair?
Andis it fair for someone to work hard all day long at his job and then watchsomeone else who only worked one hour get paid the same as he does?  That is the fairness question that seems tobe posed by the parable Jesus tells.

Isuppose the Matthew includes this parable in his gospel as a word to his Jewishcongregation made up of folks who have tried to follow the Law all their livesand have now embraced Jesus as their Jewish Messiah, but also a congregationthat is increasingly adding Johnny-come-lately Gentiles to its number.  Like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke,this parable speaks to those who have tried to be faithful for the long hauland now find it difficult to celebrate with those who are latecomers.
ButI’m not sure this parable is really about fairness.  Rather I think it is about an entirelydifferent sort of community, an entirely different sort of reality, somethingMatthew calls the kingdom of heaven, his very Jewish way of saying “kingdom ofGod.”
Thiskingdom has nothing to do with going to heaven. It is about an alternative to the empire of Rome and the ways of theworld.  I think we sometimesmisunderstand Jesus when we assume he is talking about our getting into heavenrather than the ways of this alternative kingdom, this alternative world.  And this world seems not to have books orbalance sheets.
Manyof you know that the scripture readings for each Sunday in our worship comefrom a lectionary, a list of readings for each Lord’s Day.  The particular lectionary used byPresbyterians breaks from some older lectionaries in that it does not alwaystry to connect the Old Testament readings with those from the New.  When we are not in a special season such asAdvent or Lent or Easter, our lectionary tries to read the Old Testament on itsown, with some continuity.  And so overthe summer we’ve moved from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph and now to Moses and thestory of the Exodus from Egypt.  Ourreading today about manna in the wilderness is not meant to comment on thegospel reading, but I think they have a great deal to do with one another.
Goduses Israel’s time in the wilderness to form them into a different sort ofpeople, a people who are meant to mediate God’s presence into the world.  When they come into the land of promise, theyare supposed to live in a manner and construct a society that embodies what Goddesires for the world. 
Oneof the lessons of wilderness is an absolute dependence on God.  When God provides manna for the people, it isliterally “daily bread.”  It is enoughfor today, and no more.  Other than theexception of gathering a two day supply in preparation for the Sabbath, mannacannot be stockpiled.  No one gets moremanna by burning the midnight oil.  Noone has a freezer full of manna because she works harder than others.  All have enough, but no one has more thanenough. 
Thisis a very different world from the one Israel left behind in Egypt, and forthat matter the world we live in.  InEgypt’s world and ours, there is not enough to go around, and so we must allstruggle to gain our share.  And we mustdo more than that.  We must accumulateextra so that we will be secure, so that we do not find ourselves wanting.  We do not dare pray for daily bread and trustthat this will be enough.  But in thewilderness, Israel must.
Theequality that comes from this mutual dependence on God is a radical one, andone that does not sit well with a human drive to take care of ourselves, toprovide for ourselves.  We are proud ofbeing able to provide for ourselves and family, or perhaps embarrassed if wecannot do so.  And I think some of ourconcerns about fairness arise from this.
Noticewhat those workers in the vineyard say when they raise the issue of beingtreated unfairly.  “You have made them equal tous.” 
Ina world of not enough, where we must struggle to secure our share, making equalsof those who do not struggle as hard as we do is a threat.  But not so in the wilderness.  Not so in God’s new dominion.  Not so in a community shaped by love and dailybread. 
Becausewe are familiar and comfortable living in our world, we are prone to think thatGod’s world is a lot like ours, only better. But Jesus says otherwise.  God’skingdom is shaped by love, not competition. It is a place of abundance, not scarcity where I must secure my share,and in the process prevent others from having enough, precisely how developedcountries like ours relate to third world countries.  No, the abundance of God’s kingdom features aradical neighborliness, a love that will not let another go without.  It is a bit like a loving family, only withoutany of the baggage that sometimes comes with families.
Decadesago, I heard a story about a family whose second child was born with specialneeds.  These special needs demanded agreat deal from the child’s parents, and her older sister began to feelneglected, even though her parents went out their way to not to do so.  Children learn quickly the ways of ourworld.  They realize that there is notenough to go around, and they had better struggle for their share.  And so the older sister complained that itwasn’t fair that her little sister got all the love and attention. 
Herparents listened to her.  They madedoubly sure they were not neglecting her. They explained once more why they had to spend so much time with hersister.  And then they showed hersomething about love.  They lit a candleand said, “This is our love.”  Thengiving her a candle they lit it saying, “We give our love to you, but our loveis still here.  We give our love to yoursister,” lighting another candle, “and we still have just as much love left togive.  We have more than enough love forboth of you.”
God’slove is exactly like that.  And the worldGod imagines is built on love like that. Imagine an entire community, an entire world built on such afoundation…  Maybe that’s why Jesus couldtalk about it only in parables.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - From Fleshy to Spiritual

There is an unfortunate tendency in our day to think of body and spirit as two totally different, separate, disconnected things.  To many people, the body is a shell or container while the spirit is something altogether different that can exist within this shell or outside of it.  In this understanding, to become spiritual is to get in touch with this non-corporeal side of our being.

The Apostle Paul does not share our modern, Western notions of body and spirit.  For him, flesh and spirit do not speak of any body-spirit dichotomy.  Paul has a holistic understanding of our human nature.  When he speaks disparagingly about being "in the flesh" he is not talking about a problem inherent to having a body.  Rather he is talking about a life that is driven and animated by the ways of the world.  This can include bodily desires, but it also includes things like greed, jealousy, or desire for autonomy and control, things we don't necessarily associate with our bodies.

In today's epistle reading, Paul speaks of those who are spiritual receiving "the gifts of God's Spirit,"  having spiritual discernment, and having "the mind of Christ."  In contrast, he speaks of the congregation of believers in Corinth as still being "of the flesh" because there is "jealousy and quarreling" among them. 

What an interesting contrast between spiritual and fleshy.  If a congregation experiences quarreling they are not spiritual but fleshy.  But if instead they are discerning and know the mind of Christ, they are spiritual.  Obviously they have fleshy bodies either way, but Paul says they are fundamentally different.

When I grew up in the Presbyterian Church I never heard much about spirituality or discernment.  And by natural inclination, I am not a person who gravitates toward activities that many think of as spiritual: meditation, chanting, silence, candles, and so on.  Yet I have found myself experiencing deep spiritual longing in recent years.  As much as I love theology and studying the Scriptures, I feel a burning need to do more than know about God.  I need to discern the mind of Christ.  I need to know God.

In his letters, Paul speaks of the transformation that happens when one is "in Christ."  We become new creations and everything old passes away.  This sort of dramatic transformation does not happen by getting enough information or the right information.  It does not happen simply in the mind.  It goes deeper, into the totality of who we are.

My faith upbringing did not well equip me for this sort of knowing.  This is not because we have bad or wrong theology, but because we somehow forgot that faith could never simply be about getting the facts right or agreeing with this and that.  Faith is about moving from fleshy to spiritual in the way Paul speaks of that transition, a move that fundamentally changes who we are.

This is sometimes a struggle for me.  It is so easy for me to slip back into those comfortable, well-practiced ways of "knowing about" that I have learned, ways Paul might describe as "of the flesh."  God, draw me in deeper.  Let me know you.  Let me have the mind of Christ.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Rend Your Hearts

O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
       Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
       and speak the truth from their heart...

who do not lend money at interest,
          and do not take a bribe against the innocent. 

Psalm 15:1,2,5

I saw an post on facebook this morning about my home state of NC proposing a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage.  (This is hardly novel,  In fact, NC is the only southern state that currently has no such ban.)  A friend shared a blog post that spoke against the amendment, but in a curious twist, facebook highlighted a quote that was actually an anonymous comment on the blog.  It said, in part, "Who are you to question the law of G*d?" sic

This sort of argument is frequently invoked in the cultural war around LGBT issues.  The problem, of course, is that many who invoke God's law do so very selectively.  This point was driven home to me the morning psalm, which says that those who lend money at interest may not enter the Temple.  And in case you are unfamiliar with the Hebrew form poetry which is used in psalms, it rhymes ideas and not words.  That is, it features parallel phrases, and in this poem lending money at interest is paired with taking bribes.  These two actions are seen, in some sense, as synonymous.

The Christian Church actually enforced a ban on lending money at interest until the 1500s.  John Calvin, the founder of my Reformed tradition, was one of the first to come up with a creative way around the ban.  He admitted that the Bible prohibited the activity, but he also saw the need for companies to come up with money to grow their businesses.  And he said that because the ban on interest was there to protect the poor, lending money in ways that created jobs and income for the poor could be done.  Even though it technically violated God's law, Calvin argued that it actually upheld the intent of God's law.  

We long ago forgot that lending at interest was a carefully crafted, under-certain-circumstances, exception.  We now allow absurd interest rates on credit cards and payday lenders who exploit the poor.  And I never hear anyone invoke God's law or tell bankers that they are going to hell.

I raise such issues because I'm struggling somewhat as I look at our very fractured, partisan cultural landscape and wonder about a way out.  I have long worried about the dark, "shadow side" of American individualism.  It did help foster a society of creativity and achievement, but I fear that when it is not balanced by a strong, unifying community impulse, it becomes destructive.  As with many other things, our greatest strength can also become our greatest weakness.  And I see much of the partisan rancor in our society coming from this weakness.  To some degree, political parties have become groups of like-minded seeking their own good and not the good of the whole.  They even seem able to confuse their good with the good of the whole, and so the aims of the other party are "dangerous, treasonous," or "bad for American," all terms casually bandied about in political discourse.

But my personal struggling is not so much with the sorry state of American politics.  It is rather with the sorry state of the Church that has made its own contributions to all of this.  Somewhere along the way we in the Church happily went along with American, individualist notions, and gradually created the idea of a private, personal faith.  Faith became about my personal beliefs, my accepting of some formula of salvation, and not about the peculiar sort of community Jesus called "the kingdom of God."

I think it well past time for the Church to admit that we have lost our way, and I say this from a moderate/liberal perspective.  Our problem is not the loss of some religious veneer from American culture, nor will it be fixed by hanging the 10 Commandments on buildings, discriminating against LGBT individuals, or teaching Creationism in schools.  Our problem is we that have allowed faith to become believing a few things and "going to church," and we have ceased to form people so that they are equipped to live by the ways of God's alternative community, the kingdom of God. 

There are not easy fixes to this problem; no new program or class or strategic plan will do it.  The time has come, as the prophet Joel said, to "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble...Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing."

Jesus calls us to be a community of disciples, but all too often, we are little more than an occasional gathering of believers.  Our beliefs have little impact on the lives we live, and yet we wonder why fewer and fewer of our children see any need for the Church.  And it is time for us who love the Church to own up to this.

If I seem a bit depressed about the current state of affairs, I suppose that I am, and this may even cause me to overstate the negatives.  However, as a Reformed Christians, a Calvinist, I am a cosmic optimist.  God is ultimately in control.  Congregations and denominations may disappear, but God was never bound to these.  God's purposes are being worked out in ways beyond my comprehension.  The promise and hope of good news to the poor, release to the captives, rest for the weary, and blessings for all the families of the earth are still moving forward.  And I pray that I shall find myself a part of that movement, and not standing in its way.

Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - REPENT!

The word "repent" has become something of a cartoon word, more likely to appear on the panel of a comic strip than in regular conversation.  Other than reading it from the Bible and then talking about it in an accompanying sermon, I'm not sure I've ever suggested to anyone that he or she needs to repent.  But of course, all of us do.

In its stereotyped, cartoon form, "repent" has come to mean something that terrible or evil people need to do.  It's a word a street preacher might use when telling someone he is about to go to hell if he doesn't repent.  In this sort of understanding good people or "saved" (another loaded word) people don't need to repent, but bad or evil people do.  Trouble is, Jesus seems not to use the word this way at all.

For Jesus (and for John the Baptist) repentance is needed because, "the kingdom of heaven has come near" ("kingdom of heaven" being Matthew's way of rendering "kingdom of God").  The issue is less whether or not repenting makes you good enough to get in.  Rather, repenting means to change so that one's way of living begins to conform to this new day, this new dominion of God that is approaching.  Much of Jesus' teachings is about the ways of this kingdom.  And every one of us who has not yet fully learned to love our enemy, to forgive over and over from the heart, to love others as much as ourselves, to do God's will over our own, to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of God's new day, and so on, haven't yet fully conformed to God's kingdom.  And so we still need to turn, to change, to repent.

This is probably truer of pastors than anyone.  Our work gives us a lot of cover.  Many of our day-to-day tasks have the appearance of doing God's work, and so it can disguise our ambitions, the way we grumble about members who don't do their share, or the way we measure ourselves and our congregations by budgets and Sunday attendance rather than how faithful we are to God's call.  Being a pastor is even a great place to hide from God's call.  If God is calling a pastor to some other place or some other kind of ministry but that pastor is comfortable where he or she is, how is anyone other than God going to know.  The pastor appears to be doing God's work when, in actuality, resisting it.

My favorite way to use being a pastor in ways contrary to the kingdom is to busy myself with work but get disconnected from God.  That has the added bonus of insuring I don't hear God if God asks something of me not already a part of my routine.

God's kingdom looks little like the world we live in, and our lives are shaped by and conformed to this world.  But those ways do not work in the world that is coming, the new day Jesus shows us.  And so, Repent!

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Sermon video - Brokenness, Love, and Hope

This was my effort at speaking the gospel on the 10 year anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Sermons also available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - 9-11 Agitation and the Cross's Foolishness

We did not significantly alter our worship service yesterday on the ten year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.  Those events did, however, figure prominently in the day, especially in the sermon.   I tend to prepare my sermons well ahead of time, and while this sermon gave me more trouble than most, it was still finished many days before.  Given that, I was somewhat surprised at how yesterday's worship impacted me.

I found myself ill at ease in worship yesterday, and I don't think that came from the day itself.  I think it was my sermon that bothered me.  My own sermons often bother me in the sense that I'm not happy with them or think they are not very good.  But this one unnerved and agitated me a bit.  This had nothing to do with it being a powerful sermon or such, but somehow the sermon, the service, and the day combined to make be realize how much 9-11 drew us into the world's brokenness.

Last night I got to thinking about this, and it struck me that I have become as oblivious to the deaths of people in Afghanistan and Iraq as the 9-11 terrorists were about killing people in the World Trade Center Towers.  The tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of combatants and civilians who have died scarcely register with me.  They are simply numbers.  That many, many more innocent civilians have died in our war on terror than died on 9-11 has bothered me intellectually, but for some reason it hit me emotionally yesterday.

One of the questions right after the 9-11 attacks was how anyone could do such a thing.  How can anyone think their cause makes it acceptable to kill completely innocent people who are just going about their daily lives?  Some have even suggested that one definition of evil is the loss of the capacity to see some other human beings as mattering, as being others like me.  The 9-11 terrorists clearly had lost that capacity.  Their cause had blinded them to the humanity they killed.  But has the same happened to me?  Do the lives of Iraqis and Afghans not matter in the battle to keep terror beyond our shores?

Yesterday I preached about how dealing with the world's brokenness often draws us into it ourselves, and I also talked about how God deals ultimately with the world's brokenness through love.  And as I read Paul's words to the Corinthian church in this morning's epistle reading, I became fixated on the phrase, "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

The cross is foolishness.  It is no way to battle evil.  It makes no sense.  How can turning the other cheek, praying for enemies, and going to the cross without even a struggle, do any good?  No wonder we reduce Christian faith to getting our tickets punched to heaven.  It doesn't make sense in our real world.  It is pure foolishness.  And somehow yesterday made it clear to me how much trouble I have embracing that foolishness.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon audio - Brokenness, Love, and Hope

Download this audio here.

Sermon Text - Brokenness, Love, and Hope

Exodus14:19-31 (Matthew 18:21-35)
Brokenness,Love, and Hope
JamesSledge                                              September11, 2011

Manyof us here today can remember where we were 10 years ago when we first heardabout the attack on the World Trade Centers. I was in the church lounge as people arrived for the first meeting of aFall, weekday Bible study.  I heardreports of a plane hitting the first building from some of those people as theyarrived. 
Mostall of us later saw the images of the towers with smoke pouring from them,followed by the sickening sight of them collapsing down on themselves.  Those horrible images of the buildingsfalling and dust swallowing up that part of Manhattan are forever seared intomy brain, as I imagine they are for many of you.
Andnot only did those events imprint themselves onto our memories, but they havegreatly altered our lives.  Flying on an airlinechanged dramatically.  Relationships withMuslim neighbors are still a point of conflict and division.  We have been more than willing to exchangesome of our freedoms for a bit more security. And we are still embroiled in seemingly endless war in Iraq andAfghanistan, wars costing trillions, but whose true costs are impossible tofully measure.
WhenI began thinking about what I should say or do on this Sunday, I was a bittaken aback to discover the Old Testament reading for this morning.  Our verses from Exodus bring to a closeIsrael’s escape from slavery in Egypt, a story filled with more than its shareof carnage and terror. 
A series ofhorrible plagues, including the death of every first born in Egypt, human andanimal alike, finally convinced Pharaoh to recognize God’s power. 
ThePassover and escape from Egypt are the events that form Israel into a people,and our reading marks the end of those Passover events as Israel now leavesEgypt and heads to Mount Sinai, the mountain of Yahweh. 
Israelhas come out of Egypt, but Pharaoh has had a change of heart and pursuedthem.  When the Israelites saw theEgyptians, in fear they cried to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves inEgypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out ofEgypt?  Is this not the very thing wetold you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?  For it would have been better for us to servethe Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” It seems that the Israelites were no more certain about God orMoses than was Pharaoh.
Whathappens next is well known, if only from the movies.  Moses stretches our his hand and the watersare dried up.  I can picture it easily,with Charlton Heston playing the part of Moses and Cecil B. DeMille specialeffects creating a dry path through the sea. Crossing the sea on dry ground is part of the imagery of our scripture,but it ends with a more troubling one.  Israelsaw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.
Thesongs of Moses and Miriam that celebrate this event in the verses immediatelyfollowing today’s reading speak repeatedly of horse and rider thrown into thesea.  And Israel saw the Egyptians deadon the seashore.  I wonder ifthat image was seared into those Israelites minds the way 9/11 is for many ofus.  To be certain, it is a much happierevent for them, but it is not a pretty picture. 
Inthe Exodus story, God’s intervention in the world’s brokenness on the side ofthe oppressed seems to drag God into that brokenness.  Dealing with evil produces greatcarnage.  Thousands of first born liedead, and Israel now gazes on Egyptian bodies lying on the shore.  The Passover events state powerfully God’scommitment to Israel, which includes a promise made to Abraham that all thefamilies of the earth shall be blessed through him.  But the problem of the world’s brokenness, ofevil, of oppression and violence and slavery remain.
Itturns out that God deals with this more fundamental problem of the world’s brokennessin a very different manner, not with violence or plagues, but with Jesus’suffering and self- sacrifice.  I thinkthe gospel reading this morning is jarring next to the story of slaughter inthe sea.  Forgive over and over, and notbegrudgingly but from the heart. Otherwise you will be counted among the wicked, a part of the world’sbrokenness.  Granted the forgivenessspoken of here is within the community of faith, but Jesus is more than happyto extend this requirement beyond the Church, telling us to pray for ourenemies and do good to those who persecute us. 
Notmany wanted to hear Jesus say such things in the aftermath of 9-11.  Not that people didn’t come to Church; worshipattendance swelled, but it quickly waned. The religious impulse inspired by 9-11 evaporated in much the same waythat the good will of the world shortly turned to animosity and the sense ofunity we felt as a nation degenerated into one of the most divisive andpartisan times our nation has known. It’s strange in a way.  For amoment, the horrors of 9-11 pushed us toward one another and away from thebrokenness of the world.  But then wemoved back toward brokenness.  We wantedvengeance.  We were afraid and we wantedsecurity.  We distrusted anyone whowasn’t “with us.”
Theawful events of 9-11 stand as a terrible monument to the world’s brokenness, tothe reality of evil and inhumanity in the world.  The firefighters and police who rushed intothe Twin Towers stand as an enduring reminder of the human capacity for selflessness,the willingness to risk everything, to give one’s life for another.  But what will the enduring legacy of 9-11be? 
Thatis still a work in progress, but I fear the work is not going well, at leastnot from a Christian perspective.  Infact, it seems to me that a truly Christian perspective is largely absent fromthat work.  The Church has too rarelyspoken on Jesus’ behalf in discussions about how to respond and move forward inthe aftermath of  9-11.  We have checked our faith at the door whenentering the arena of patriotism, politics, and war.
Myown faith has never led me to become a pacifist, though I sometimes wonder ifthat is more a lack of nerve than good theology.  But I am tentatively convinced that theworld’s brokenness at times requires the use of force to protect the innocentand vulnerable.  But this always involvesbodies on the shore.  It is alwaystragedy.  Yet we Americans have carefullynumbered our men and women who bravely gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraqwhile hiding from view all those Afghan and Iraqi bodies on the shore, numbersestimated anywhere from 100,000 to over a million.
Butif the occasional use of force is at times warranted this side of God’sKingdom, it is a provisional, stop-gap measure that draws us into the world’sbrokenness, a brokenness that God finally overcomes not by force, but by love.  As Christians we are, perhaps, sometimescalled to take part begrudgingly in the use of force.  But as the body of Christ, our identity isrooted in love and mercy and hope and forgiveness.  And I still recall the words of the preacherat the National Cathedral in the days just after 9-11 when he cautioned usabout how we would respond to the great evil of 9-11, “lest we become the evilwe deplore.” 
Tenyears later, as we remember those who died, as we look back at how the worldhas become a very different place, we who are people of faith need carefully toconsider where we have placed our hope and trust.  And as I consider the strange contrastbetween Old and New Testament readings this morning, I find myself clinging toseveral truths.  In a broken world, Godsides with the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed; and against thepowerful and mighty.  God’s ultimatevictory over evil and brokenness comes not by might, but by mercy, grace, andlove.  And in Christ, we are invited tobecome part of that victory even now.